Nine times out of 10, when the phone rings in a small Waco police dispatch office, it’s bad news.
Police officers under attack, burglaries in progress, battered wives, fatal auto accidents, injured children.
The dispatchers of the Waco Police Department communications center deal with tragedy daily. It’s the nature of the job, and they understand that.
But nothing so far compares to Feb. 28, the day 100black-clad federal agents stormed cult leader Vernon Howell’s Mount Carmel compound and were turned away by automatic gunfire.
The teamwork and professionalism exhibited that day by five dispatchers and their supervisor has earned them a statewide award.
Four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents and at least five cult members died in the gun battle, which erupted as the ATF tried to serve arrest and search warrants on Howell for weapons violations.
Five minutes after the raid began, a 9-1-1 line rang in the communications office. Dispatcher Jayni Sykora answered the phone and listened while a frantic Wayne Martin, an attorney and cult member, reported the shootout while gunfire echoed in the background.
Sykora handed the phone to Lt. Larry Lynch of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department, who had come to the police department to field what he expected to be calls from people who saw the agents during the raid and wondered what was happening.
The call from Martin started a 30-hour marathon of give-and-take between Lynch, the dispatchers in the 9-1-1 office and cult members. While the negotiations that day and night did not end the siege, they resulted in a ceasefire and the release of several cult children before federal authorities took over negotiations.
Federal officials have credited Lynch and the six dispatchers of the 9-1-1office with saving untold lives. Today, the dispatchers will be among 15 from around the state honored with the “Telecommunicator of the Year Award” from the Advisory Commission on State Emergency Communications, the state agency responsible for overseeing the 9-1-1 network.
Those to be honored this afternoon at a luncheon in Austin include Maria D’Marco, 9-1-1supervisor, and Waco dispatchers Sykora, Kathy McElyea, Lori Pace, Evelyn Dresner and Sandy Neally.
“The whole thing went as smoothly as it did because of them,” Lynch said of the dispatchers. “It was a tremendous team effort. Those dispatchers kept me sane.”
The dispatchers credit Lynch for much of the success of the initial negotiations. They formed a strong bond during the intense phone calls, they said.
And while the statewide award is nice, they quickly add that they were just doing their jobs.
“This particular award is a wonderful opportunity for statewide recognition for their efforts, but their job requires them to do it every day,” D’Marco said. “They negotiate every day, they assist people in crisis ever day. In this line of work, you do not deal with people who are fine and don’t need help. We only deal with crisis. This job exists because people need help.”
Neally and the others said that calls involving officers in trouble are the most stressful.
“We are proud to get the award, but I am sorry that the situation happened where we had to get it for that,” she said. “Any time you lose an officer or there is a loss of life, that is really hard to accept.”
After Lynch started negotiating with Martin, another 9-1-1 call came in. Pace answered the line and it was Howell, also known as David Koresh, on the phone.
Howell was rambling, talking about the Bible and Revelation, she said. She quickly traded phones with Lynch, and she started talking to Martin.
At the end of the shift, most of dispatchers stayed to help and had to be forced to leave so they could return at 6:30 the next morning, Lynch said.
“They’re the best,” he said.